How Britain Found Its Technological Groove

The story behind the UK’s Government Digital Service.

Wanted: “Weirdos and misfits with odd skills.” So declared a 2019 advertisement—via blog post—to work in the new British government. It was published by Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the Brexit referendum and Boris Johnson’s landslide victory, who is now the Chief Special Adviser in charge of all policy in Downing Street.

For those who have followed Cummings’ fascinating, eccentric career (or watched Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant portrayal of him in Brexit, The Uncivil War), this should be no surprise. For Cummings, Brexit was only ever a means to his real objective: to destroy the British civil service, the non-political cadre of administrators who run the day-to-day operations of the UK government.

Cummings’s experience with the civil service began in 2010, when Michael Gove, then Education Minister in David Cameron’s government, hired him to spearhead a program of radical school reform against fierce resistance from the civil service and educational bureaucracies. The reforms focused on freeing school principals from local government supervision, increasing the rigor of the curriculum and focusing resources on phonics and traditional subjects. Gove and Cummings were successful in forcing these proposals through, which were particularly effective in improving educational achievements for the poorest students. Their success became clear four years later when England’s PISA education tests showed significant increases in math and English scores. But the politics were ugly, with civil servants and teachers’ unions leading a fierce and personalized opposition, convincing Cameron to fire Gove and Cummings, whom he called a “career psychopath.”

Now, the success of Brexit and the new Johnson government, in which Cummings is in charge of the civil service, is sweet revenge.

But while Cummings may have cynically exploited nostalgic nationalism to win elections, that was never his ideology. Rather, as he wrote a review about the failures of Tony Blair’s government, he wanted to develop “a recipe for coping with the economic and technological forces, from drones to genetic engineering, that are disrupting society faster than our institutions can adapt. This requires replacing many Whitehall institutions with ones that can change as quickly as the world around them changes.” In other words, the call for “weirdos and misfits” is an attempt to bring new, disruptive skills into government service so Cummings can achieve his dream of a renewed country.

On the surface, that ambition may sound reasonable but, in his hubris, Cumnings missed an essential point. As Stephen Bush, the editor of the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, observed: The British government already has a successful example of transforming government operations—the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS), which was established in 2011. In its first five years, GDS took the UK from tenth to first in the United Nations e-Government rankings, while saving GPB4 billion ($6 billion) in technology spending, driving digital take-up rates above 90 percent for government services; opening up technology procurement to over 1,200 small and medium-sized suppliers; and creating a series of popular, heavily used digital offerings. Instead of starting from scratch, Bush argued he should learn from the institution and architecture that already exists.

It may seem odd to reflect on a genuine success of the Cameron government.  Like Lord North, who launched and lost the war against the American colonies, David Cameron may be remembered only for the one catastrophic decision—to launch the Brexit referendum and then lose it, but before then, his government had some real achievements, with GDS high on that list.

When Cameron came into office in 2010, the British government had earned a reputation for technological incompetence.  Blair had loved the idea of modernizing government through technology, but his government had botched the implementation of his key initiatives, using top-down approaches and multi-year project plans, and deferring to a small circle of technology companies for the execution and delivery of them. The result was a predictable disaster. The National Health Service IT program, a $19 billion project that took 11 years and doubled its original budget before failing ignominiously, was only the most high-profile blunder. Another was the e-Borders system, an attempt to digitize the immigration system, which took 11 years and $1.3 billion before collapsing completely.

Upon taking office, Cameron appointed Francis Maude, an experienced minister with no further ambitions, to straighten out this mess. Maude set out a few basic principles: no projects costing more than $150 million, no more multi-year projects, mandating the use of open sources wherever possible, opening up contracting to small technology firms, and centralizing digital delivery in a new unit—GDS. He hired a team of technologists, designers, and project delivery specialists drawn from established companies like the Guardian newspaper, which had made the transition from a traditional business to a new digital model. He then gave them authority over all government websites and technology procurement and prepared to protect them in the vicious bureaucratic battles that lay ahead.

The results were spectacular. After four years, the government announced that it had consolidated all government services on a single website, GOV.UK. Digital services, like paying car tax and registering to vote, were being used for more than 90 percent of all transactions and the government was launching new services, like a wildly popular e-petition offering, which allowed citizens to submit petitions to Parliament. In the first 100 days after its launch, citizens submitted 21,500 petitions, six of which received more than 100,000 signatures, triggering an automatic parliamentary debate. The program saved the government more than $6 billion on its IT spending while providing better service. Governments around the world, such as Canada’s and Australia’s, rushed to copy the GDS model. In 2015, the Australian communications minister acknowledged as much in the launch of the country’s Digital Transformation Office, when he wrote to his British counterpart: “If plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, you should be feeling very flattered.” Indeed, the Obama administration, stung by the public humiliation following the collapse of healthcare.gov’s rollout, created the US Digital Service as a direct clone of GDS.

What had gone right? GDS had used no new technology, or fancy techniques, and had not relied on brand-name consultants and experts. Its approach was simplicity itself: Find out what users really need, then deliver a solution quickly, iterating to improve it rather than waiting to release something perfect. What’s more, its operators were open and honest about the work: using open source tools; writing in clear, straightforward English; building prototypes and creating applications that are simple and intuitive to use. If this sounds like common sense, that’s because it was—at least among technologists who understood agile techniques. But it was far from the culture of the British government. The cultural change was everything. The real question is how a small unit in the center of government was able to achieve such a radical transformation and make it stick.

Lucky for us, the GDS team wrote about its process in blog posts and later in a book, Digital Transformation At Scale. One of their catchphrases was the subtitle: “Why the strategy is delivery.” The starting point, the authors explained, was to find a political sponsor, a politician senior and powerful enough to protect the initiative, who believes in the importance of the work and is prepared to take on the necessary political battles. The champion needs to be in a central part of the government, not just a department head. He or she needs visibility and clout across the entire system, with backing from the top.

Then, it’s time to build the team. The GDS team warns against hiring from large technology companies, where the staff is unlikely to have experienced the struggles of bringing an old technology base into the modern world, focusing instead on civic technology groups and digital teams from legacy companies that have managed such transitions.

The third step is to pick a small number of projects—ideally new ones without legacy technology that needs to be adapted—where the new team can build credibility by building something that works, quickly. The best outcome is to find projects that senior political leaders are proud to show off. Only then, with the political backing established and credibility built, can the team start negotiating from a position of power for a mandate. That must include certain veto powers over government agencies and budget controls over departmental technology spending, without which there is no chance of making meaningful change.

This is when the hard work of transformation can start. The GDS team, for its part, pulled together a database of every service that the British government provided, and found that 10 percent of them were responsible for 90 percent of transactions. It then took these on, streamlining the processes; simplifying the language; and coding with open-source, easily reusable, and updatable tools. It then published its working methods and its performance metrics—digital take-up, completion rate, cost per transaction and user satisfaction—spreading the institutional knowledge throughout the government and the public. The objective throughout was to make it easier for citizens to interact with the government online than through any other channel.

Once the early results had started to come through, the GDS team began evangelizing for its approach, regularly publishing honest assessments of their failures and their successes, always explaining their methods. Every member of the team was required to post on the blog page; press releases were strictly forbidden. Their commitment to the discipline, focus, and sacrifice made them stand out in a field that too often prized cleverness and complexity. GDS made sure that the UK government stopped overpaying for technology, instead using efficient methods to offer cheaper, better services.

That is a story of success that is relevant not only to Dominic Cummings as he tries to prepare Britain for a post-Brexit world, but to any politician who wants to provide better, more responsive services to citizens while saving money and restoring trust in government. It’s a rare accomplishment to achieve deep cultural transformations in entrenched bureaucracies. We can all learn from what the UK’s Government Digital Service was able to achieve.

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Simon Clark

Simon Clark is the chair of Foreign Policy for America.